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Equal Justice For All

January 27th, 2010

During January, I was given the opportunity to participate in the Self-Represented Litigation Network’s Training on Public Libraries and Access to Justice in connection with the Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) Conference. The training is co-sponsored by Legal Services Corporation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The two-day conference addressed how public libraries can provide access to free online legal information to their patrons. The conference was a unique opportunity for participants to meet with legal and court experts to discuss strategies for integrating access to free legal information into library programs, including what information to post on library Web sites, how to talk about the content with library patrons, how to work with partners to make sure that needed content is developed, how to share what they have learned statewide, and how to use successful programs to advocate for the importance of public libraries as gateways to government institutions.

Fifteen teams from across the country were selected to attend the conference. The Illinois team consisted of Debra Aggertt, Illinois State Library; Peggy Busceni Grady, 19th Judicial Circuit; Robin Helenthal, Bloomington Public Library; and myself.  We learned about the broad range of currently available free online legal resources, customer-friendly legal tools developed by courts, bar associations, and law libraries, and legal aid programs that support people without access to legal aid or counsel.

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), funded by the Federal government, is charged with providing civil legal aid for the poor in the nation. Established by Congress in 1974, LSC operates as an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that promotes equal access to justice and provides grants for high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans. Here in Illinois, the LSC works with Illinois Legal Aid to provide legal self-help information at the state and county levels. Madison and St. Clair are among the 37 counties who already have local legal self-help centers. Over the next three years, the remaining counties will open centers.

What does this mean for Illinois libraries? When patrons contact the library with legal questions, such as: How do I change my name? Change my child support? Create a will?  the library can refer the patron to either Illinois Legal Aid for assistance or one of their free forms or your area’s self-help center. A few simple things your library could do to further aid patrons with these questions might be to add a link to both locations onto the library’s Web site (Illinois Legal Aid marketing) or ask your county’s self-help center to present a program(s) at the library on their resources. Over the next months, you will be hearing more about the legal resources available for your patrons.

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